Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Helping SMEs and reviewers help you

One of the issues we need to guard against is excessive confidence in our own ability. In the past, when managers asked me to estimate a completion time for a project, I almost inevitably came up with a "best case" scenario with very little margin for error. Plus, I usually failed to consider a very important fact when I mentally calculated the time: I need to rely on others for timely information and reviews! How to combat such a mistake? Learn to help others help you!

That's right. Sadly, we can't do it all by ourselves. However, I have found that persistent (but gentle; we need to work with these folks in the future, remember) pressure helps subject-matter experts (SMEs) and reviewers deliver on time. Also, give deadlines for them! Explain when you need to finish the chapter (or document or whatever unit you're working on) and how much time you'll need to make revisions and conduct any further reviews. Most people will understand and, so long as you give them more than a day or two, will work to help you meet your deadline. Just remember that your job isn't in the forefront of their minds, so reminders do not hurt.

As I said, though, be gentle. "Hi! Just wanted to remind you that I need the XX review by the end of tomorrow. Let me know if you have any questions, and thanks again!" is much better than, "Finish the review by tomorrow at 5PM and place it on my desk." Persistent, polite requests are a lot better than demands. If you can tack the reminder onto another request, so much the better, because you won't seem quite so naggy!

Even better, go see the person! E-mails are easy to ignore (or to set aside for later reading... which might or might not happen!). However, in-person reminders are impossible to ignore. Plus, if the SME/reviewer knows that you'll be back and they'll need to look you in the eye and explain why it's not done, they're more likely to do it. If in-person meetings aren't possible, phone calls are good, too.

Let's summarize the tips to help SMEs and reviewers get stuff to you on-time:
  • Be very clear about what you need from them and ask them to confirm that they understand. Sometimes they might not look at it right away, and you don't want to waste valuable time explaining the task when it's getting close to the deadline.
  • Give them more than a day or two. I usually give between 3 and 5 business days.
  • Persistently, but gently, remind them (and ask if they need any information from you) as their deadline approaches. If possible, attach the reminder to another request.
  • Go see them in-person to explain the task and to remind them to complete it. It's difficult to ignore people when they're right in front of you.
Good luck! Create good relationships with your SMEs and reviewers and help them learn to help you, and you'll be poised to demolish your deadlines!